Bishop Woodie White Reflects on Annual Conference, 'the Methodist Way'

May 21, 2009

Soon United Methodists will break into singing, "And are we yet alive, and see each other's face?" It is conference time! The sons and daughters of Wesley will gather in the annual ritual to give account of their year's ministry, to greet one another, and to plan for another year. It is the Methodist Way. Methodist preachers have been coming together as a group since 1773.


Indeed, much has changed since Charles Wesley penned those words sung the world over, [but] the annual conference session . . . is still the defining moment for the gathering of United Methodists and others who are a part of the Wesleyan family.


I recently heard someone declare: "I don't do conference." Meaning that attendance at this time-honored gathering was no longer a part of his life. Of course, I have heard my share of stories about the irrelevancy or at least the boring nature of annual conference sessions. Come to think of it, I may have even made such comments myself!


It is sad to some extent; both observations have become true in too many instances. [However,] the annual conference session is a unique expression of Methodism. It is a part of our DNA.


I have attended annual conference on three continents! I have sung, "And Are We Yet Alive" with Methodists of different countries and cultures. I have never ceased to be moved, when clergy and laity alike sang, "What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fighting's without, and fears with-in, since we assembled last!"


I remember, however, how the experience and meaning of annual conference changed for me as I entered into the category then called, "Special Appointment." I was appointed beyond the geographical bounds of my "home" conference, hundreds of miles away. I was no longer a part of the day-to-day life of the conference. The ongoing relating to colleague clergy there became a sense of distance that was more than geographical. My context for ministry was now in a different place.


Returning to attend annual conference proved more challenging each year. I knew fewer people, and fewer people knew me. I became increasingly out of the loop of conference life and gossip. Sometimes I felt like a stranger, even a visitor in my own "home" conference. I had to seek out old friends, who were busy and often had other responsibilities. It may still be a challenge for many in Extension Ministries.


I began to recognize the special significance of that annual gathering. There were certain elements of that annual litany that held considerable meaning for me. I felt rooted beyond a ministry setting to a context of meaning and purpose of ministry itself. I was inspired by the Ordination Service and would renew my own sense of calling. I was moved close to tears when retiring clergy and spouses were honored and thanked for their years of service.


From time to time, there were those who asked about my ministry. More often than not, however, I was asked when I was returning to ministry! I learned to take it in stride and laughed it off. I became less defensive about such remarks.


As time nears for your annual conference session, I hope you are able to attend. There may be moments of feeling like a visitor. I hope you will be able to find some old buddies, finding time to catch up on each other's lives and ministry. By all means, work your way through the crowd and speak to your bishop, make sure he or she knows you are present. Don't miss those moments of conference special to you. May they inspire you as they did me.


Though the experience of attending conference might be different [for some of you] than in years gone by, I hope you will experience its special place in your life.


I made a decision many years ago, that I would not be ignored out, forgotten out, pushed out, or even drop out of the annual conference session. I recovered its meaning and significance in my life and ministry. I was compelled to join that mighty chorus of laity and clergy each year in singing, "Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain."


Until next time!


Bishop Woodie W. White